After sleeping under the stars for 978 days and travelling the entire length of the equator several times, he packed his bike into a neat little box and boarded a flight back to his home country. He was a borne adventurer, a rough man with a steady, firm, handshake and worn out hands that would regularly get him out of trouble in his travels. He arrived at the airport with time to spare, checked in his bike in a box and boarded the plane.
I feel a pretty deep connection to Holger Franz Hagenbusch. I met him on a beatiful morning on the mountain pass between Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl. I recognized him instantly as a fellow bike traveller, upon deeper examination we found that we had both lived close to the town Bochum, in Germany. I had looked exactly like he looked in december 2010 when I had climbed that very road to Paso de Cortés with my bike, on my way to Chiapas and eventually Cancún, just like him.
Skipping most of the usual questions I jumped right into the direction and duration of his trip, of course, asking about his equipment. We talked about his bike, a Surly. A german with a Surly? Pretty remarkable and unusual combination. And without a Rohloff? Even weirder. Holger explained that he had built this bike in America – I inspected his bike closely. It was a Long Haul Trucker with a front and rear panniers. I used to travel with a Surly Cross Check and loved it. I travelled the baja, chihuahua, mexico cancun, Barcelona to Slovenia, the pyrenees and Norway with it. All before it was taken from me in the city of Guadalajara. A group of 5 people took it from me. Apparently they only wanted my cell phone –These amateur mexican robbers had no idea what my bike was worth. To add insult to injury, there was no signal to unlock my phone from the icloud account that protected it and they grew ever more anxious. They dragged me away from the street and into some train tracks, I could hear the train coming at a distance. They made me kneel and pushed a gun right to the back of my head. GIVE ME THE PASSWORD! They demanded. ‘I’m telling you the password’, I replied, ‘but it’s not working’, I explained there was no signal, really not wanting to die giving customer support to a group of disgruntled idiots.
They beat me up a little every time the password did’t work. The train horn broke the silence intermittently as it was nearing. They were losing their patience. They threatened to hit me with the butt of the gun and leave my body on the train tracks for the train to dispose of. Their shouting grew louder, their beating me up too, the cold steel pressed to my head every time they asked for the password. The sound of the train now an impossible roar– WAIT, I said: take my bike!! It’s worth more than the phone! ‘How much?’ they asked–I hesitated, not wanting to disclose the full price… about 10,000! OK, they said. They disappeared to the other side of the tracks, just before the train passed and left me there kneeling. I could see my white, custom Surly Cross Check rolling through the train gaps beneath the passing cars. It was a lucky getaway for me. I’m lucky to be alive.
Today, I can’t help but remember when in 2010 I rode the exact same road that Holger died on. Back then I wrote:
My opinions on the zapatista movement are generally neutral. I must say I feel empathy and completely disagree with the military and political oppression in the area, however I am not an expert on the subject, and it’s not my intention to judge, but this is what I lived through when I went by:
“They will rob you here, you know? They say they are zapatistas and even if they’re not, they will fuck you”. That is the first thing I heard when I entered Ocosingo, from a group of teenagers. –the next thing I heard was “If I were you, I’d just go back, it’s going to get dark and all hell will break loose”.
It is notable that this incident happened almost in the exact same place where Holger was found, in the same road. I shiver when I think of this. I’ve ridden my share of roads, races and courses. Holger Franz Hagenbusch and Krzystof Chmielwski were not part of an accident as the authorities have said. Their bodies did not end up in that cliff after being hit by any car. They were purposely thrown there after being murdered, I have no doubts about it.
- I’ve ridden that road, it is not dangerous, car wise.
- Bikers uphill tend to distance themselves, especially when their gear differs as greatly as these guys’ did, (bike trailer vs. no bike trailer).
- You do not lose control of a bike while going uphill.
- The whole idea that the this is an accident is completely ridiculous.
Having travelled through most of my country, I can only say that the dangers are becoming un manageable. I have been robbed several times, Humberto Cabrera was shot in the face by a .45 caliber illegal weapon, I barely survived the ordeal in Guadalajara I described before, and Holger will never ride his bike because of this. The people responsible for this should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
* Cover picture is a self portrait taken on the road from Tuxtla Gutierrez to San Cristobal de las Casas in 2010; Holger’s instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kozmopolit_by_bike/ ; Holger’s website: http://www.kozmopolit.de/en/
We have always needed to work to get what we want, that isn’t new. From time long past, the work we required to do involved a certain amount of physical activity, we traded abilities for goods, goods for other goods or daughters for land, all of them required hard work. Even after currency was implemented as a medium of exchange, after Plato’s Akademia came into being (the birth of the geek who sat on chairs and thought for a living), after the industrial revolution and after the invention of many other commodities, we still had to perform physical exertion, if not for anything else, to physically transport ourselves.
Our bodies are meant to perform physical exertion, even at a chemical and physical level, and psychologically as well there is no denying that what we now call exercise, which used to be part of what we called life, is not only healthy, but even necessary. Yet, we drive on huge moving cars, trains or buses, we ride on elevators, escalators, even doors are automatic nowadays… and it turns out that all this is not healthy for us, it’s damaging our well being and costing us thousands on medical bills, health magazines, sports equipment and yes, on gyms. What is a gym? For most of us, a gym is where you go compensate for your everyday lack of activity -unless you’re a top athlete, or under physical rehab in which case there is no substitute-.
It’s a wonderful irony: We avoid manual means of locomotion at all costs, we ride on toll freeways or high speed trains to “save” time yet, come the afternoon we flock to the gym, running on treadmills staring at “sports” on a TV or taking a detailed look at the seams of the shorts on our partners arse while riding on a static bike. We drive on a car to get to a gym, where we ride on a bike that doesn’t move. Wouldn’t it be better to just ride a bike to the gym? In fact, wouldn’t it be better to skip the gym altogether and ride to work/school? – But I live way too far to ride to work, plus it’s dangerous, plus it’ll ruin my hair, the more sofisticated reader might ponder. But he could still do part of it on a bike, mixing it with whichever public transport he wishes or with small walks or he could avoid elevators, take the stairs and all the while work on his Gluteus Maximus. Life is full of possibilities indeed, and I maintain that the greatest, cheapest and most accessible exercise apparatus is the omnipresent floor, the common stairs a solid second.
However, there is a bigger problem, because if you take a closer look, it turns out a lot of these activities (cars and transport) are harmful for the environment as well… and now I must note, hoping I’m not coming across as a total luddite, hippie or both: I love technology -I’m a mechatronic engineer- big on programming and high tech stuff. The problem is I was recently introduced to the concept of a Progress Trap and frankly it seems we’ve fallen on a few of such traps, I’m rather sure of it:
A progress trap is the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve.
I’m worried, after familiarizing myself with the subject, a fear for our own contriving collective intelligence and diminishing future has begun to grow on me. The clearest and most typical example of a progress trap is the invention of the beloved automobile. It’s no wonder to me that even Aldos Huxley’s god in his dystopian classic A Brave New World is named after Henry Ford. The automobile has been a status of progress and indeed an advantageous addition to our lives, it truly has changed the world. However, in the big scheme of things, it has contributed as much to our wellbeing as a cheesecake to a weight watchers meeting.
Don’t get me wrong, I like cars, I own two of them, they are great examples of human ingenuity and most of the times, they make our lives better, but nowadays, in a society that strives to eradicate atomic power, reduce CO2 emission to zero, become self sustainable and healthier, cars as we know them, well, they don’t really fit in, do they? But that’s the part of the progress trap concept that’s really scary, we designed all this amazing boats, trains and cars to transport all kinds of things half way around the world at a reasonable cost. We created a society sustained by a global economy dependent on all these transported goods -this is relatively new- and as it happens, it is precisely these things that are causing global warming, over cropping, pollution and non-sustainable commerce, yet we are too far along to turn around, to hooked on the stuff to stop, we can’t go back.
We can’t take cows back to Europe, we can’t take oranges away from New Yorkers -as little as 50 years ago it was not uncommon for New Yorkers to receive oranges from California as a Christmas present- or apples (electronic or otherwise) out of international markets. We are proverbially “fucked”, the plane has crashed into the mountain and we continue to collectively pull on the throttle, ignoring all of the solutions that we already have, mostly because they are not to our -and I mean our society’s- short-term economical advantage. Emphasis on solutions we already have, because we do, consider the following:
I must confess I can think of many reasons for not using bicycles in Mexico City, one of them very important: it’s suicide, in a city with 28 million? It has to be. Everyday bicycle commuting in a city as big and chaotic as this one must be scary at best, or plain life threatening, depending. The utopian image shown in the picture above is probably not found in the bulk of this city, right? Perhaps on cherry picked areas and situations, which brings me to my next, seemingly contradictory point: You can cherry pick your situation and safely ride your bike to your job or school, and for that I will provide you, my avid reader, with a list:
- Use common sense, which is surprisingly uncommon
- Polish your bike skills, ride with your eyes open and no headphones, attention is paramount. Your life depends on it
- Invest some time into finding a viable (read: safe) route
- Get some lights that are really visible
- Ride defensively and always expect the worst; parked cars will open their doors, crossing cars haven’t seen you, pedestrians will jaywalk, assume massive potholes are everywhere, motorbikes will try to shove you off the road and trucks/peseros/camiones will go out of their way to block your safe passage and murder you
- Admit that cars are killing machines and avoid them like the plague; better to do a few extra kilometres on an empty street, than to save 20 minutes. Exercise, good. Risk, bad
- Use a bicycle lock that is at least 10% of the cost of your bicycle, otherwise you might get there, but your bike won’t last long
Find a nice, safe, enjoyable route. Do whatever it takes. Use Google street view, drive around, ride your bicycle, scooter or skateboard and find streets without cars, try small pedestrian streets, side streets which you would normally avoid. You can ride on the sidewalk (carefully). In this city, bicycles are not respected by cars, trucks or anyone. Public transport will try to run you over and there is almost no specific infrastructure -apart from a few upper class neighbourhoods, there are few usable bike lanes- but this can all be turned to your advantage. The city is yours; cyclists are above the law, or maybe just under it but it doesn’t matter. If you strive to reduce your carbon footprint, be healthier, thinner, look better and save money on transport, gasoline and gyms, you can do it. Think about this next time you complain about traffic, polluting trucks or the ridiculously unintelligent doble no circula policy.
Everardo J. Barojas
Please go here to watch the full article with pictures, map and descriptions :-)